Trish Mercer is a survivor.
Her journey reads like a Dickens novel told from an aboriginal point of view, from an impoverished childhood in Newfoundland, through chance encounters with strangers good and bad, and finally to a new life in Chilliwack.
Now Mercer, 34, wants to give the Innu people of Davis Inlet — sometimes called “the lost people” of Davis Inlet — the “tools” they need to start their own journey: clothing, books, or even just a letter from a pen pal.
This is her appeal to the people of Chilliwack — not government or organizations — to help the people of Davis Inlet find their way.
“It all starts with love,” she says.
‘I just wanted to fit in’
She knows all about feeling unloved.
Apprehended by the government on different occasions as a child, Mercer is “bounced around” foster homes all around the province of Newfoundland.
All the foster families are non-aboriginal, and she remembers crying her heart out as a nine-year-old because she doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere.
“I remember sitting there on the edge of my bed and thinking, ‘I wonder if anybody would miss me if I killed myself?'”
“But I always had this faith,” she adds, choking back the tears, “that I knew I could do better, that I could be somebody better. I wanted to show people that anything is possible.”
Her foster parents weren’t bad people, Mercer is quick to explain, “they just didn’t know how to give me what I needed.”
What she needed was an identity. She knew she was an Indian — but what did that mean?
“There was no one to teach me about my history, where I came from,” she says.
But one day on the TV news, she hears about “the aboriginal spirit” in British Columbia, and she vows to go there someday.
“I just wanted to fit in,” she says. “I wanted to fit into a society where it’s acceptable to be aboriginal, and I wanted to be surrounded by every type of culture.”
The ‘Lost People’ of Davis Inlet
The Innu are the last aboriginal people in Canada to give up the hunting way of life, following the caribou herds across the frozen expanse of Labrador.
But uprooted from their traditional territory, the Innu are moved into government-built homes without plumbing or running water on the remote shores of Davis Inlet in Newfoundland.
Soon, the Innu succumb to alcoholism among the adults and to solvent sniffing among the young people.
In 1993, a video released to the media shows six children between the ages of 11 to 14 sniffing gasoline in an unheated shack and shouting they want to die.
In 1999, a report by Survival International, an international native rights organization, blames the Canadian government for the “crushing poverty, the rampant substance abuse and the sky-high suicide rates of the Labrador Innu.”
In 2002, shamed by the negative publicity, the federal government relocates the Innu, but the damage is done and the social problems only follow the community.
‘Are We In Canada?’
At 16, Mercer started her journey west to escape “the never-ending cycle of pain and suffering” in her home community.
“I feel like I’m choking on the past,” she tells one kind woman, who gives her shelter along the way. “Nothing changes. It’s a never-ending cycle of pain and suffering and I want to break free of that.”
Arriving in Toronto is a major cultural shock for the young Innu girl.
“I said ‘Hello’ to everybody,” Mercer recalls. “People were looking at me like I’d lost my marbles.”
She gets a job, but discovers she needs something called a social insurance number.
“I didn’t have a SIN card,” she says. “I wasn’t even registered as a person until 1994. I didn’t even exist until then.”
Eventually arriving in Vancouver by bus, Mercer asks the bus driver, “Are we in Canada? And he looked at me funny and said, ‘Of course we are.'”
She has never seen a place green in February.
But Mercer’s luck with the kindness of strangers is about to run out.
“There was a man standing outside the Greyhound bus station,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Can I help you?'”
“I almost got killed because he took me to his house and locked me in this room with bars on the windows,” she says. “He didn’t do anything to me, but it was scary.”
Fortunately, another man living in the basement of the house helps her escape.
“He said, ‘You need to get out of here right now,'” Mercer recalls, and he called the police, who could have sent her back to Davis Inlet, but instead they send her to an aboriginal safe house in Vancouver.
Mercer stays there, absorbing the aboriginal culture around her, for the next two and a half months.
“For the first time in my life I felt at home,” she says. “It was a shelter, but I felt like I was home.”
Mercer is granted the “the privilege” of choosing her next foster home, and, surprisingly, her choice is a non-aboriginal woman.
“She was not aboriginal, but very open to different cultures,” Mercer explains. “I just had a gut feeling about her. She didn’t push anything on me.”
“I wanted to know my heritage,” Mercer says, so the woman took her to her first pow wow.
“I never felt so alive in all my life,” Mercer recalls. “I just cried and cried.”
“These people are proud,” she realizes, as she watches the pow wow. “They’re happy; they sing and dance… I felt like I belonged for the first time in my life.”
‘My dream of how life should be, unfolded.’
With aboriginal connections made through the safe house, Mercer’s life takes on a new and vibrant direction: she finishes high school; she gets a full-time job at a computer call-centre; she becomes the proud mother of six children.
“My dream of how life should be, unfolded,” she says.
But the recent Idle No More movement touches off memories of Davis Inlet.
Mercer does an internet search “to find out what’s going on back home” and discovers that although the location of the community has changed, the conditions have not.
“I don’t think I cried so hard in a very long time,” she says.
The pictures of the children, and the pain in their eyes, is instantly recognizable to her.
“I knew that pain because that was me looking right back at me,” she says.
But what to do?
Mercer calls her friend Crystal Dixon at the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella for advice.
“You need to shower them with love,” Dixon tells her.
From her own life experiences, Mercer knows Dixon is right, and the idea of Sending Love To Davis Inlet is born.
“Love is taught,” Mercer says. “You cannot make people change. It is not possible. But you need to give them the tools, and they need to work it. It all starts with love. If you don’t show love…”
Mercer called Davis Inlet to find out the community’s needs, and a community youth worker there tells her baby clothing, jackets, shoes, and socks are needed, and the children “could also use some letters of love, letters of encouragement.”
Mercer is hoping some children in Chilliwack will become pen pals with the children of Davis Inlet.
“So they see that they’re cared about,” she says. “It all goes back to the basics.”
Most of all, Mercer says, she wants to let the people of Davis Inlet know “they are not lost, and that people love them” and that there is hope.
“I’m a survivor,” she says. “That’s my purpose. I need to stand up and show people that I’m not a problem in society, that I rose above that.”
“I survived everything, all of the abuse, and turned it into something different,” she says.
“It’s my responsibility to my children, to my community, to let them know there is hope.”
For more information about how to make donations email Trish at firstname.lastname@example.org
Donations, with the contents labeled “Davis Inlet”, can also be dropped off at the Back At You Thrift Store in Chilliwack at 3-45676 Yale Rd. during store hours (Mondays to Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).